A short turn to the death of democracy

Analysts, commentators, bloggers and unpaid interns all struggle to characterise the current election campaign in terms other than totes bores. There is a gaping void at the heart of political life in Australia and there is no consensus around what might be required to fill it. Suggestions abound: more policy, more commitment, more authenticity. But even if Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten dropped the script and spoke with more sincerity, what do we imagine the outcome could be? What sort of transcendental politics do Australians think Electricity Bill and Mr Harbourside Mansion might provide?

Reading much of mainstream political commentary on this campaign is an unsettling experience and in listening to tweeted pleas for a return to the ‘real’ Malcolm Turnbull, one gets the sense of a missed psychic beat. Of course it may be a mistake to ascribe meaning to this digital dribble: people seem to have an unquenchable desire to say stupid shit and, in the age of twitter, to say it first. The slower ones, encumbered by thick fingers and dumb phones (which now perform the curatorial function that reflection and shame once did), are left to simply retweet. (As in those Q&A tweets ‘so-and-so for PM!’, ‘Bring back the real Turnbull’, ‘stop the halal Skyrail’ etc.) But given this is the register of public debate, it’s unavoidable.

So who is the Malcolm Turnbull so many journalists, progressives, ‘leftists’ and centrists are yearning for? Indeed who is the Turnbull that the Labor Party, in an extraordinary failure of political judgement, continues to suggest once represented a great opportunity for Australia?

Apparently the country was overwhelmed by ‘relief’ when this self-made, growth-loving, neoliberal took over from Tony Abbott last year. I don’t know who all these relieved people were – they certainly weren’t the asylum seekers languishing in interminable hell in Australia’s offshore detention centres, they weren’t those for whom weekend penalty rates are the razor-thin edge between precariousness and poverty, they weren’t our near neighbours who, as our immigration minister delighted in pointing out, will soon have ‘water lapping at their door’. Whoever the ‘real’ Malcolm may be, he is as useless to us today as the ‘otherwise progressive’ Malcolm, bound and gagged by the Liberal Party right, who we currently have to endure.

The real Malcolm is a projection – but the projection is as hollow as the reality it attempts to conceal. Turnbull’s well-rehearsed self-characterisation, which he offered up to a desperate Laura Tingle during the leaders’ debate, is of a self-made man who amassed a great fortune through talent and hard work. But, as Paddy Manning points out, before he ‘made’ himself Malcolm Turnbull was the recipient of a $2 million inheritance. Turnbull’s fabricated narrative, in which he made his own fortune, is to perpetuate a classic Tory myth. The ALP doesn’t dare point to this fact lest it be accused of class warfare. And class is just as dirty a word for Labor as it is for the Coalition.

This election appears to be about nothing because to talk about the real issues would require an acknowledgement of a broken system. To raise the most urgent questions of class, of ideology, of social relations would reveal the terminal crisis of cultural and political life in this country. The logic of capitalism now structures the most fundamental human relationships. Any remnant of solidarity and a belief in a collective destiny (and indeed in a collective path toward it) has given way to the dogma of individualism. This, in itself is not a new phenomenon – in fact, it is a form of social organisation that has been coming undone for some time. This election appears to be so remarkably devoid of content precisely because neither leader is prepared to accept this. The distance between the urgent political reality and the palliatives on offer is what makes the campaign seem so uniquely hollow.

None of the issues that have been raised – asylum seekers, the price of milk, minimum wage, taxation, industrial relations – can be addressed without an acknowledgement of the political crisis we face. But neither major party is prepared to do so. Instead of talking about citizenship, democracy or economic justice, leaders skirt around the margins. Hence, ALP policies, such as cracking down on tax evasion rather than addressing a system that makes corporate tax evasion not only possible but desirable, or the announcement of a $500 million fund for the Great Barrier Reef and an ETS while avoiding the ideological and economic forces that have produced and perpetuate this environmental crisis.

The price of milk, as some have already argued, seems to be most tangible, ‘real’ issue we were going to see. The reason it felt significant was that it touched on problems at the heart of social and political organisation in this country. But instead of talking about the erosion of the social ties that once formed the basis of market relations, the impact of the concentration of corporate power on primary producers and the cultural impact of the free market as an ideology, we have an asinine debate around regulation in which the two major parties simply attempt to differentiate themselves. The issue is reduced to a policy debate (price minimum or a levy) avoiding the core question: do we want to be consumers or political citizens?

The problem of asylum seekers is another such issue. In an age when mass displacement and a fragmenting conception of national sovereignty catastrophically collide, the figure of the refugee has become a potent symbol. In this election a humanitarian crisis is reduced to a deadly combination of policy minutiae and a macho assertion of border integrity. In Australia we have designed a system so punitive that self-immolation becomes the final form of resistance. That the ALP sees commitment to a regime of torture as an imperative reveals the depth of the current moral and political crisis.

The reason this election is so boring is that the two men competing for power represent death – the death of an economic system which, despite its self-perpetuating cyclic dynamic, is utterly unsustainable, the death of a mode of politics that for so long has ensured the functioning of that economic model, and the death of a world in which we could (if naively) take for granted where and how we lived, in which we weren’t so immediately and terrifyingly threatened by an environment and a climate that cannot withstand the devastation we continue to visit upon it.

What will emerge in the wake of this political crisis remains unclear. Meanwhile the campaign rolls on, the symptoms are morbid and boredom abounds.

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